The sixth ranked Gopher Hockey team will try and become the only two-time winner of the North Star College Cup in its fourth and final season at the Xcel Energy Center this weekend. The tournament that brings together four of Minnesota’s five Division I college hockey programs annually will end after this season, as it seemed high ticket prices and low attendance doomed its future. The other four schools would much rather the Gophers made a trip to their own arena then face Minnesota at the X. So the tournament will be no more.
Besides Minnesota, two of the other three teams in this years tournament also will have a chance to be the only two-time champ. Bemidji State won the tournament in 2015, a year after Minnesota, and St. Cloud State won last year. Those two teams will face off in the first semi-final Friday afternoon. Meanwhile, the favorite on paper coming into the tournament is the team who can make it four different champions in four seasons. Minnesota-Duluth is the #2 ranked team in the country and is coming in off of a sweep of North Dakota in Grand Forks. They will get the Gophers in the second semi-final Friday evening.
Minnesota comes into the North Star College Cup after spliting a series against Wisconsin in Madison. The Gophers won 4-3 in OT on Friday night before falling 5-3 on Saturday. Thanks to Ohio State taking five of a possible six points from Penn State last weekend, the Gophers remain on top of the Big Ten standings 40% of the way through the season. The Gophers got a big weekend out of captain Justin Kloos who has now scored a point in eight straight games. He scored the overtime game winning goal Friday night and added a second on Saturday. He now has 14 points in his last eight games for MInnesota. Tyler Sheehy continues to shine as well for Minnesota. He added four points to his season total on the weekend and continues to lead the Big Ten in scoring with 32 points on the year.
The Gophers achilles heel this season continues to be their goaltending. Eric Scherhorn continued his up and down season last weekend looking decent in the Friday night win, but looking lackluster in the 5-3 loss Saturday. Granted his defense in front of his did not give him any help, but Schierhorn will need a much better effort Friday night to defeat the Bulldogs.
UMD comes into the North Star Cup leading the NCHC with a 25-5-4 overall record. The Bulldogs swept North Dakota with scores of 5-3 Friday and 4-0 Saturday. Freshman goalie Hunter Miska became the first Bulldog goalie to shut out the Fighting Hawks twice in his career....as a freshman. Miska alternated with two other Bulldog goalies earlier in the season, but has now made 18 starts in a row for UMD with a record of 14-4-2. His 2.13 goals against average and 92% save percentage are good enough for fourth and third in the NCHC.
UMD is getting well rounded scoring as well. Alex Iafallo leads the Bulldogs with 25 points on the season. His ten goals put him in a three-way tie for the team lead with Adam Johnson and defenseman Neil Pionk. Pionk is a Hermantown native who has been arguably the best defenseman in the NCHC this season and is playing himself into being one of the most highly sought college free agents for NHL teams to try and pry away this summer.
The key for the Gophers to try and snap UMD’s six game winning streak over Minnesota will be to shut down the Bulldog offense. Going back to October of 2011, UMD is a remarkable 67-1-6 in games where they have scored more than three goals. If Minnesota can keep UMD to three or less, with the way the Gophers offense has looked of late, there is a good chance the Gophers will advance to the championship game on Saturday night. If not, and UMD gets that fourth goal, its probably an afternoon tilt on Saturday for the third year in a row. Either way there will be maroon and gold playing for the title on Saturday.
In a weird quirk, the Gophers will be the “road” team in both games they play. UMD will get to wear the home white uniforms and get the last change on Friday night while Minnesota will wear their road maroons. Both teams playing in the late game on Friday will be the “road” team in their respective Saturday games as well.
#20 Bemidji State will take on St. Cloud State in the early semi-final on Friday. The Gophers and Beavers have yet to match up this season while the Gophers were swept in a home and home series in October by St. Cloud State after the Gophers blew third period leads in both games. The Beavers have a 16-9-2 record and lead the WCHA this season while the Huskies come in at 11-12-1 on the year. The early semi-final will not be on TV, but will stream on nchc.tv.
The two semi-final losers will play at 4:00 PM Saturday, while the winners will play at 7:00. Saturday’s Minnesota game will air on Fox Sports North+, while the other game will stream on nchc.tv .
How to Watch:
#6 Minnesota Golden Gophers vs #2 Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs
What: North Star College Cup Semifinals
When: 7:00 PM Friday
Where: Xcel Energy Center—St. Paul, Minnesota
TV: Fox Sports North
Radio: 1500 ESPN